Putting the Cart Before the Horse

I fear we’re doing it wrong…education, that is. We live at a time when 21st century skills and edtech are all the rage. Creativity, coding, and active learning have become mainstays of teacher professional development. Heck, even the current US Secretary of Education incorrectly believes that we are preparing most students for jobs that haven’t been created yet. What is acceptable practice in the classroom is changing so quickly that teachers are struggling to keep up; one new tech tool to use here, another future ‘skill’ to teach there. It’s enough to be a factor in teacher burnout.

Of course, we want to give students the tools/abilities/skills to be successful in a changing world. We want today’s student to solve problems we cannot solve yet and create a healthier, happier, and more productive world.

So, where are we going wrong?

We’re placing the cart (creativity/innovation) before the horse (content knowledge). There is such a push today with students to be creative and innovative.  Now, to be honest, there’s nothing really wrong with that sentiment, as long as we acknowledge a major prerequisite for creativity and innovation…knowledge. Simply put, one cannot be creative with information they do not have. Let’s have a look at Bloom’s Taxonomy:

This chart is known by just about every teacher. It is ubiquitous with planning lessons, planning questions, and is often talked about in teacher training programs and professional development sessions. Generally, the idea is to have students working at the top of the triangle; evaluating existing information and creating new ideas and/or works. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The problem is we are, more and more, asking students to start at the top instead of starting at the bottom to create a firm foundation of content knowledge before climbing the triangle. This practice of attempting to start at the top is, at best, inefficient; usually it is ineffective. A person who has very little background knowledge on car engines would have a great problem attempting to ‘start from the top’ with creating a new, more powerful engine or evaluating the pros and cons of different types of engines. A much more efficient and effective usage of class time would be to simply instruct the student on engines (starting from the bottom), giving the student the opportunity to gain the necessary knowledge, before advancing up Bloom’s taxonomy.

Am I saying that being creative is bad? Do I believe that edtech is inherently detrimental to the learning environment? Not at all. I am all for any strategy, gadget, or tech tool that improves the learning environment; allowing students to think with and apply the information in new ways. I just believe we’re getting ahead of ourselves a bit. Knowledge first, then creativity and innovation.

What do you agree/disagree with in this post? Please comment. I want to have a conversation.

Feature image from https://medium.com/the-telegraph-engineering/putting-the-cart-before-the-horse-5ecf4f4b2dd1

Bloom’s Taxonomy image from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/blooms-taxonomy

14 thoughts on “Putting the Cart Before the Horse

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  1. What if you placed two different engines next to each other and asked students to compare/contrast? It allows them to use their prior knowledge and collaboration to determine what they already know. Ask them how the engines differ and whether or not they have different purposes. Give them a diagram and ask them to fill in what they definitely know in pen, what they guess in pencil, and leave the rest blank. Then ask them to compare with each other.

    With a foundation of already considering and applying what they know or think they know, the teacher can then pose fruitful questions to stimulate creative thinking that will allow them to guess. They could try to build a mock engine using what they’ve generated so far (computer simulation maybe) to test their ideas.

    And after all of that, after they self-generate questions about what they want to know about engines, they are maybe given content to fill in the gaps.

    Even if you insist that content knowledge via lecture dumping is critical, I fail to see how it must be the first step.

    1. To use your engine analogy, if I don’t know anything about engines, how would I be able to notice any differences or similarities outside of “this part looks bigger/ smaller than this other part over here.”

      Why not use direct instruction to teach the basics about engines first: basic components, how they work etc, then move on to the lesson you described. I think students would have the ability to be more creative with their responses with the basic knowledge first.

      1. Hi Jaclyn. I’d imagine in a room full of students, there would be someone who knows something about engines. Direct instruction is an effective way to learn for some students, but not for all. This is a good reason to not rely on direct instruction exclusively, but to incorporate many modalities of learning in the classroom. Lecture is largely a passive activity for the students.

    2. You refer to “prior knowledge”. How do you think that knowledge got there? Via “lecture dumping”, as you call it. The scenario you pose actually demonstrates the point of this blog post.

      1. Or possibly prior knowledge got there because students don’t come to the classroom straight from the womb. They have experiences in the world and gain knowledge outside of the classroom. Possibly even about engines.

    3. “gain knowledge outside of the classroom”

      If a student has significant knowledge about anything, it’s because someone taught it to them. Even a book is a lecture in written form. People that rely on first-hand experiences to learn are very ignorant by today’s standards.

      Having random people in the world teach you things is great, useful, but inefficient, which is why we have classrooms. It’s intensely concentrated life designed to accelerate and improve the quality of learning. It works.

  2. Can we say “usefully creative”, rather than “creative”? People without knowledge can be highly creative, but their ideas are of low quality, when not totally absurd.

  3. I am definitely tracking with your line of thinking here. And I wish it was more apparent to more people, especially my students. That being said, I also see the line of thinking in starting at the top of Bloom’s on my way to building knowledge–running into problems reveals that I need to build my knowledge base.

    Let me give you a for instance: my adventures in blogging. I didn’t know a single thing about blogging a few years ago (go a few years back, and I didn’t even know they existed!). When I realized I had a voice and wanted to share it (I decided I was going to blog), then I found a platform, signed up, and started. It was clunky and uncomfortable. I didn’t know what HTML was. I didn’t plugins, widgets, ping backs, tags, or how to schedule a post. Then I added in social media, and the learning started all over. I didn’t have to attend courses, I learned as I went. Now, I recognize that a key factor here is that I was highly motivated and I was not on any timetable. But I did acquire a lot of knowledge in an open-ended project-based initiative. I will also acknowledge that I am an adult, and I have a lot of prior knowledge for some really necessary prerequisites, like all the classroom training I had in writing.

    Where am I going with this? I’m not disagreeing. I’m not really challenging your line of thinking either. I’m truly wondering where my scenario fits in the process. And I’m wondering if knowledge-building is a thing that can happen as you go?

  4. I think we agree 100% that students need skills at all levels of the taxonomy. The issue is when we should be teaching which skills. I don’t think you’re implying that first we should teach a semester of “knowledge” and then we the students are ready, we teach them to create with that knowledge. I believe it’s important to interleave these skills, and I think a creative exercise can be a great way to get students thinking about a problem and bring their prior knowledge to bear. The example above that Danette gives is a terrific example. Then we teach them some relevant facts and recipes. Then we give students an opportunity to practice them and maybe be creative with them. I see this as a cycle that happens in the course of a day or a class period. Do we disagree?

  5. I liked your text a lot, it makes me think about what I do in my undergraduate physics class at a public university in Mexico City. I’ve been thinking about the learning goals, and I want my students not only to learn physics concepts but also understand them and think like a physicist. In order to do that I mix the lecture method, especially if I am introducing various news ideas, with “minds on” and “hands on” activities to achieve conceptual understanding Many physics teachers concentrate on content knowledge that is tought through writing those ideas in the blackboard or presenting them in a power point presentation. I also think that you cannot learn physics if you don’t have an experimental experience dealing with “the real world”, nor if you don’t provide the students with the skills to learn from reading, watching videos, or working with web pages in order to have a minimal content and procedural knowledge.

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